Sault College at Davenport
Patterson Ice Center
Grand Rapids, MI
November 2, 2019
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute goalie Lovisa Selander earned a fair amount of notoriety in 2018-19 when she broke the NCAA Division I career saves record, finishing with 4167. Selander’s senior year was her most prolific, as she made 1232 stops – translating to 0.62 saves for every single minute she spent in the crease, or a hair over 37 per 60 minutes. By any measure, hers was an impressive work rate that would test any goalie on the standard guild assertion that they’d rather be busy and get a feel for the puck than the opposite.
However, roughly 672 miles west of RPI’s home base outside of Albany (and even further than that in terms of attention from The Ice Garden and other media outlets), another goalie was even busier last season, to the tune of 0.64 saves per minute and 38.43 per game while standing as her team’s only netminder and therefore never getting any sort of reprieve from the barrage. She topped 60 saves in a game five times during the year, while Selander only did so once.
Selander, who now plays in the NWHL for the Boston Pride, was and is a great goalie, of course. But she’s no Julia Gaynor, a hierarchy locked in well before Gaynor was introduced as Davenport’s starting right wing today.
At this stage of the sport’s development, most men involved in women’s hockey have something of an origin story, a triggering event or series of events that explains their presence in an area of the game that probably wasn’t a significant part of their childhood. For Miracle on Icer-turned-coaching legend Mark Johnson, it was a job opportunity. For thousands of fathers, it was a daughter who wanted to play. My origin story is all about goalies.
In the fall of 2010 I, like many other Penn State alumni, was excited about the addition of NCAA hockey to the school’s lineup – so much so, in fact, that I wrote a blog about it for three years. Initially, I focused exclusively on the men’s side, and the team I had worked for as an undergrad that was now receiving a long-overdue promotion. But then, a story in PSU’s Daily Collegian shortly after Terry Pegula’s initial exit from the news cycle caught my attention.
Once [Heather] Rossi entered the room, [head coach Mo] Stroemel told her she had been selected to represent the United States in the 2011 Winter World University games in Erzurum, Turkey. It was seconds later when Rossi was also told that her coach and three other teammates — fellow goalie Katie Vaughan, and defenders Lindsay Reihl and Kate Christoffersen — would be joining her overseas.
Two goalies from the same team headed to World University Games? Bet that third goalie is excited to get some meaningful minutes.
Except Penn State didn’t have a third-string goalie. Although one could hardly blame him for giving two talented netminders a spot on the national team, and the experiences of a lifetime that come with it, Stroemel had essentially sabotaged his team’s chances for success back at home during the tournament.
Indeed, while Rossi and Vaughan were helping Team USA to a fourth-place finish over in Turkey, a rotation of non-goalies took turns trying to hold things down stateside against eventual national champion Michigan State and a near-dynasty Robert Morris team packed with Canadian stars like Mandy Dion and Danielle McCutcheon, and therefore largely unaffected by the American roster selections.
Although Carly Szyszko, PSU’s leading scorer at the time (adding another dimension to the madness), managed a low-stress win against Division 2’s California (PA) where she only had to face seven shots, the MSU and RMU contests went about as expected for Szyszko, Julie Horn, and Lindsey Shuler, with final scores of 10-3, 16-4, 6-1, and 9-0. To add insult to injury, those results, along with a UMass upset of top-ranked Lindenwood – while the Lions were missing a ton of U.S. players and the Minutemen were not – wound up dropping Penn State out of the ACHA National Tournament that season.
Two years later, and somewhere closer to on point, PSU’s ACHA Division 1 team had become an NCAA team, and a new ACHA Division 2 team formed in its wake. That team’s biggest problem initially was one faced by many in a similar situation: numbers. They started their first season with 12 total players, three of whom were goalies. One of the goalies, team president Mary Kate Tonetti, did what she could to help the situation and played as a wing for her sophomore and junior years, helping the squad to a pair of runner-up finishes at nationals. She even temporarily stepped back in the crease while Vaughan was at her second World University Games in 2013 and shut out Delaware twice, sparing Szyszko (who was still playing at that point) from having to eat a few more pucks for the team.
The first of those events led to me writing about men’s and women’s hockey equally on my blog, the second helped me along as I became even more involved in the women’s game. I’d later learn that those types of position changes are more common than I realized at the time (for example, I had no idea that a goalie named Gena Goldbaum routinely played defense for PSU just a couple years before the 2010-11 situation caught my attention), but that doesn’t make them any less extraordinary.
And yes, it has crossed my mind once or twice that none of my experience in the men’s college game exposed me to either side of the most difficult position switch.
Goaltending is, in a lot of ways, an entirely different sport than what everyone else is doing on the ice. They have their own coaches, the equipment is very obviously different, the objectives, skills, and techniques are different, hell, the skates are different. Certainly, it’s not entirely foreign territory for most goalies to play elsewhere, either formally or informally, at some point of their hockey lives. In fact, Gaynor didn’t become a full-time goalie until 2012, and would often play half of the game in net and the other half out of it as a youth player in Goderich, Ontario.
But the ability to make that switch at a highly-competitive level? To sacrifice what you’ve trained for and what you’re good at, simply to give your team an extra warm and hopefully adequate body, so it can scratch for any advantage it may get? And when nobody would have said a single negative word about you for wearing a baseball hat and opening the bench door instead? That’s the type of selfless act that makes me want to know more about you.
Davenport, for most of its history, has had at least two things in common with those Penn State teams – lights-out goaltending, and a head count struggle, which puts a ton of pressure on that goaltending (as Gaynor knows all too well). The first DU team, in 2013-14, featured NCAA transfer Victoria Smishek and Lauren Yomantas, who would later depart and then star at rival Robert Morris. The following season brought Belgium national teamer Nina Van Orshaegen along with Caitlin Nosanov, another NCAA transfer who would become the first Panther to play at World University Games in 2015. Next came Karley Ferguson and Dawn Salo, who held the fort admirably until Gaynor arrived in 2017-18. Davenport’s roster size for those seasons, including the goalies: 16, 18, 15, 17, 17, 13, and now 12.
Gaynor’s every-other-game break from her usual spot between the pipes this year was made possible by the arrival of Dayna Templeton, a talented freshman from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. As anyone who’s seen a stunned Jim Craig exclaim “That’s my net man, you can’t do that!” in Miracle when Herb Brooks suggests benching him knows, goalies can be a bit possessive of their crease. It’s a dash of ego that helps them succeed in their unique role, and Gaynor certainly had earned some degree of deference after her record-breaking sophomore season. But that was never a concern between the two Panthers.
“Dayna came in, and she really did prove herself the first game she played,” Gaynor said. “She played phenomenal against McKendree [in a 51-save effort on October 6th]. I think that first game was huge, she really proved herself to the entire team. We’re good in our headspace when she’s behind us.”
“I’m so proud to have her as a goalie partner, it’s amazing. I have full faith in her, and I think the girls have faith in her too.”
Templeton, for her part, has enjoyed the veteran’s mentoring.
“Julia understands the fear of coming in your freshman year and thinking you might not play a lot of games,” she said. “She was one of the first players I met at Davenport when I was being recruited, she knows what she’s doing and has helped me blend easily with the team’s dynamic. She’s always encouraging me and supporting me when she plays out.”
With all of that in mind, I was all set to watch the game, find a handful of positive plays that would be largely forgotten if made by a non-goalie, and use them to sing the praises of Gaynor, the ultimate teammate in the ultimate team sport. When the general expectations of goalies skating out are “keep up with the play, offer some sort of basic contribution along the lines of clogging a lane or screening the opposing goalie, and get the puck to your stars (who are hopefully a bit fresher late in the game thanks to a couple extra shifts off),” that’s plenty to run with.
Then she scored a goal.
It wasn’t an insignificant goal either. Mispon Martin’s drive from the top of the right circle through heavy traffic, off of a turnover, just 1:15 into the game put Sault College ahead, and as the game bled out – the score remained 1-0 into the third period – it looked like there was at least a chance of it turning into the most frustrating afternoon possible, a one-goal loss with 58 minutes of missed opportunities to build a hearty stew.
But out of just about nothing six minutes into the third period, Morgan Pippin managed to play an end-board carom of a puck thrown low towards the net from the left side. She and Amanda Ballestero then occupied the Cougar defense in front, allowing Gaynor to expertly play the ensuing situation.
“I just found a lot of open space back door on the right side, so I hung back there hoping it would pop out,” the goal-scoring goalie said. “Sure enough it did, and I got it on my backhand, pulled it over, but when that did come out, my linemates, they did a great job keeping their players tied up in front of the net, so I had that open space and time to get it to the net.”
“After the first one, we were ecstatic,” defender Olivia Rudberg said. “Me and Ballsy (Ballestero, who remained calm enough to collect the milestone puck from the Cougar net) looked at each other, we were just so happy. That first goal was just insane, especially coming from her.”
Then she scored another goal.
“That’s it, she’s the queen, she’s the goal scorer on this team now!” faux-enraged DU star Courtney Mulligan would yell at me across the rink lobby after the game.
While I wouldn’t go quite that far, Mulligan is an exceptionally-gifted offensive player, Gaynor’s second goal, like her first, wasn’t the sort of butt deflection or pigeon tap home typical of a talentless plug. And more importantly, it put the Panthers ahead with 1:22 left in the game.
Just after Davenport had missed on a power play, Elizabeth O’Connor did well to win a puck battle behind the Sault net and feed it to Pippin near the bottom of the left circle. Pippin then tried to slip the disc back door to Gaynor, but it hit a Cougar stick on the way through and skipped into the air. For most goalies trying to receive that pass, it’s a dead chance. For Gaynor? Hardly. She batted it home out of mid-air just like Wayne Gretzky, the greatest scorer of them all, once did on a goal that ultimately led to a stick-produced hole in my parents’ basement door when I tried to duplicate it.
“I think she’s awesome,” Rudberg said. “She really comes out and, every time she plays whether it’s in net or out, she does an amazing job. I think it’s cool that she’s able to do that and go back and forth, and also those two goals today really helped us obviously. She’s a great player and we love that she can do that.”
In the interest of completeness, I must mention that Sault tied the contest back up on the shift after Gaynor’s second goal (“we were still in an offensive mindset,” Rudberg lamented), then quickly won in overtime on Martin’s second tally. But that’s not what I’ll remember about the game.
This was: If you get around enough, you will see something extraordinary in this sport, and also something that reminds you why you love it. If both of those somethings are rolled into a single act, which then happens twice in less than 13 game minutes…well, you should probably write something if that happens.